Point of Beginning

International Appeal

March 1, 2013
Attributed point cloud of a historic fortress in Cartagena, Colombia, courtesy of the Colombian Navy and Merrick & Company.

Serving a global market presents challenges and opportunities. The key is understanding what you’re getting into before you take the leap.

Finding new business opportunities in today’s market climate is a challenge for any surveying or mapping firm. Looking beyond the bounds of normal lines of business may even include expanding outside of the U.S. border. However, entering any new market segment can be daunting. Add to the equation a different political climate and a market with diverse competition, and the logistics of operating over a long distance can make the international scene that much more intimidating.

Before exploring business opportunities in other countries, surveying and mapping professionals should evaluate their infrastructure and finances to understand the feasibility of such expansion. For example, does specialty support for the execution of projects in foreign countries exist within your business framework or can it be easily obtained through partners, consultants and subcontractors?

The requirements for people and systems that handle human resources, accounting, foreign tax, risk management, export control, and ethical behavior in international markets are often different, too. These can be areas that catch firms off-guard.

“Some of the most overlooked challenges facing firms trying to work outside the continental U.S. are internal to the firm,” says Brian Raber, CMS, GISP, GLS, president of Merrick Advanced Photogrammetry of the Americas (MAPA), a subsidiary of Merrick & Company, which works in Central America and South America. “Companies must be committed to this endeavor, be very patient and have buy-in from everyone in the firm to succeed in the international market.”

Safety is another essential aspect. “You must be sure your people can be in an environment that is safe for them 24-7; there can never be too much preparation and attention to safety and response actions on any international effort,” says Robert Hanson, senior vice president of geospatial information technology (GIT) for Michael Baker Jr. Inc. of Harrisburg, Pa. “This is not exclusive to inherently dangerous places. Putting people into planes, boats or vehicles to go to any jobsite and then conduct work for data acquisition, surveying or other field activities always has the potential for accidents.”

Once a firm has internal support established, a variety of resources are available to help guide the venture into international work, including federal assistance and business partnerships. One of the lowest-risk ways to gain international experience is by working for a larger firm that has experience in the country of interest.

Assistance from the federal government can be helpful in the early stages of doing business in foreign countries, as well as in providing continuing education and trade missions. Working for a dependable client, such as a U.S. government agency, is often easier initially than working for a foreign government or private client. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Millennium Challenge Corp. and the State Department’s Overseas Buildings Office are among the federal agencies that contract for projects requiring surveying and mapping in foreign countries. These agencies’ contracts, terms and conditions, and payment practices are more reliable and familiar to U.S. firms than those elsewhere.

“With international work, consider the use of every available tool in your tool box,” Hanson says. “For example, the USAID mission personnel in-country have much more familiarity with the business climate in a country than many companies new to the international market realize. If your work is related to USAID, get to know their in-country personnel well.”

It is also advisable to have an in-country agent. Retaining a reliable consultant to assist with local and onsite logistics, processes and relationships is more cost-effective and efficient than trying to manage everything from a long distance. “Having local knowledge will help to avoid external issues facing U.S. firms attempting to compete for international projects,” Raber says. “This can include language misinterpretation, customs and currency issues or higher marketing and project management costs.”

Knowledge of local customs can have a significant impact. “During a recent survey project in the Middle East, our local client recognized the Holy Month of Ramadan was a factor that would influence the project’s schedule,” Hanson says. “He brought realism to our scheduling for the completion of tasks that effect scope and budget. Such realism comes from the client’s direct experience working in-country.”

Business in other countries is conducted differently than in the U.S., so it is critical to become well-versed in local customs, practices and laws. In particular, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (15 U.S.C. §§ 78dd-1, et seq.), a U.S. law that governs American companies doing business in other countries, should be analyzed.

Developing a business plan before exporting services is central to the ability to compete in the international market. Becoming educated on available resources, laws and business practices, risks and expenses is imperative.

A World View from Virginia

Recent economic surveys of MAPPS members found that U.S. firms view the international market as an area of potential growth for geospatial data, products and services, compared to many domestic markets. In recognition of the potential for global expansion, MAPPS will host a two-day conference focusing on the international market Nov. 13-14 at the Westin Hotel in Alexandria, Va. The conference will provide geospatial and engineering firms in the U.S., as well as those based in other countries, with education and information on performing work in foreign lands.

The conference will feature agencies and organizations that finance, procure, coordinate and manage geospatial and engineering projects outside the U.S. Additionally, agencies that assist U.S. companies with exporting will inform firms of services available to assist with expansion into the global market, and private sector professionals experienced in international business will share best practices.

The conference will also include teaming, partnering and networking opportunities.

MAPPS is teaming with other associations in the geospatial and engineering profession within the U.S. Those groups will be participating in the conference. For more information or to register, visit www.mapps.org.